Imitate the Saints

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: amen.

 

The Thursday before last was a wonderful day, or it was if like me you’re a cricket fan. Thursday 1stAugust was the first day of the Ashes at Edgebaston. I love the Ashes, not least because it’s five weeks of test cricket. A match played over five days is fascinating to listen to, because it forces a different strategy to a game like football or rugby. The batsmen have to keep their stamina up over hours of play. With a really good batsman, like Australia’s Steve Smith, practically the only way to get him out is to wear him down and hope he makes a mistake.

 

Stamina is important, too, for our spiritual lives. The author of the Hebrews compares the Christian life to running in a race – an image which would have been familiar to the first-century world which celebrated sports as much as we do or more. This race is a marathon, not a sprint. 

 

This sporting anaology is one we see a lot in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. He often writes about training his body like a boxer, not beating the air but training his body. He too speaks of the need to keep running to win the prize, of competing for an everlasting crown rather than just a laurel wreath that will fade.

 

We can learn a lot from this idea, whether you’re a sporting fan, a cyclist or runner or just a fan of KLFC – or even if all the World Cup means to you is a time to avoid the pubs.

 

Athletes stay at the top of their sport, whatever it is, by being continually on point – training each day, staying fit, and by not sitting back and relaxing, thinking “It’s ok, I can do this, I don’t need to try any more.” In the same way, we as Chirstians stay spiritually fit by living the Christian life every day, not just on Sundays. We pray, we come to mass, we treat others as Jesus would treat them – and in doing so we stay faithful to our calling. 

 

The way that the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to keep our faithfulness is to imitate the saints – a great cloud of witnesses. The letter to the Hebrews gives the examples of a number of figures from the Old Testament: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel – all of whom, the author tells us, died before  seeing the fulfilment of the promises made to them by God, but all of whom remained faithful and full of hope. 

 

Not that this makes those people perfect. The first thing that Noah did after leaving the ark was to get drunk. Moses tried everything to get God to send someone else to lead the people out of Egypt. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter as the result of a thoughtless oath he made before battle.

 

We might say the same thing about the saints of the Church’s history. Mother Teresa, for instance, had a deep love for God, but also faced criticism for the way she ran her hospitals in Kolkata. She also faced decades of spiritual darkness when she lived when she was certain God did not love her.

 

The saints are an example to us of how God uses ordinary folk, imperfect people like you and me, to be great examples of Christian living.

 

Think of a saint you have an affinity for. There are hundreds, thousands to choose from! Priests and bishops, monks and nuns, soldiers and workers and parents and teachers. Whoever they are, know this: God called them by name, just as he does you. They were ordinary people, who Sunday by Sunday acknowledged, as we did this morning, that they had sinned through their own fault. But every time they fell, they got up again.

 

In 2016, the Olympian brothers, Jonny and Alastair Brownlee, were taking part in the World Triathlon Series in Mexico. Jonny Brownlee was in second place overall, and looked set to win the final race, when he fell. His brother Alastair was running comfortably in third place, but he helped Jonny to stand up and together they finished the race.

 

That’s what the saints did. Not only did they get back up after falling – like St. Peter, who denied knowing Jesus but was forgiven and went on to lead the early Church – but they help others to their feet.

 

At the Angelus, we greet Mary in the words of the Angel Gabriel, and we say, “Holy Mary, Mother of God: pray for us.” It’s no different to when someone comes to you and says, “Will you pray for me?” or when someone comes to church and says, “Will you pray for my friend or my relative who’s ill, or who’s in trouble.” The saints help us to our feet, and run alongside us. And I don’t just mean the saints who have left this world, and who are now in the presence of God. I mean every one of us. That’s our vocation. Our calling from God is to live as saints now – each of us in our own way is called to be an example to others and a help to others.

 

With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.